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James Caan

(1939- )

CAAN, JAMES (1939– ), U.S. actor. Son of a German Jewish butcher, Caan grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, New York City, home to a mix of Italian, Irish, and Jewish families. Caan played football for Michigan State University, but transferred by the end of his first year to Hofstra University. After taking part in a small project at a children's theater, Caan was accepted to the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1960. His film debut was an uncredited part in Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce (1963). And while his role as Brian Piccolo in Brian's Song (1971) earned him critical attention, it was his break-out performance as family enforcer Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) that gained him the most notoriety, garnering him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and two nods as "Italian of the Year." He followed that performance with appearances in a diverse range of films such as Freebie and the Bean (1974), The Gambler (1974), and Rollerball (1975). A longtime rodeo fan with the nickname "The Jewish Cowboy," Caan snuck off during production of Funny Lady (1975) to take part in a roping competition in Palm Springs. Married four times, he lived in the Playboy Mansion after his divorce from second wife, Sheila Ryan, in the late 1970s. Caan made his directorial debut with Hide in Plain Sight (1980) and then starred in the well-received Thief (1981). After Godfather II (1974), he worked with Coppola again in the Vietnam War-era film Gardens of Stone (1987). Caan followed with such films as Alien Nation (1988), Dick Tracy (1990), Misery (1990), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), and Eraser (1996). In 2004 he became known to a new generation with his starring role on the hit TV series Las Vegas.

[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.